The iconic patriotic songs of the United States are of mixed parentage, new lyrics born of religious and political passions set to adapted, familiar melodies. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and “America the Beautiful” all have such a lineage; similarly, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was a re-working of a soldiers’ marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” a paean to the martyred abolitionist, which had originated as a lampoon of a soldier, based on an 1807 camp-meeting hymn, “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us.”
John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis present compelling evidence that Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn” lyric (1861), penned in a feverish vision of millennialist redemption in the middle of a dark night during the Civil War, has voiced the hopes of diametrically opposed sectarian and regional causes, sustained the nation through cataclysmic events, and become the “great American song” (p. 16) through whose story we can comprehend the tensions, paradoxes, ironies, fervors, antipathies, unities, and divisions in the continuous struggle of American democracy down to the present. In eight roughly chronological chapters—framed by an introduction exploring the decision by President George W. Bush to close the memorial service for the victims of the September 11, 2001, attack with a military rendition of the hymn, and a conclusion that documents sometimes surprising ways in which the hymn has served ideological opponents since the 1940s—the book is the most thorough study ever written of the usage of the song, from mundane schoolyard parodies to the grandest moments of national commemoration.
Chapters delve into the practices of the massive, rural camp meetings of the second Great Awakening and the folk process that shaped the words (the melody too, judging from the glossy illustrations, but that goes unmentioned); the adaption of the song to radically opposed causes and as a rallying cry for military recruitment in the run-up to the Civil War; the theological inspirations for the politics of the war, [End Page 677] as well as its songs; the partisan uses of the “Battle Hymn” and claims of divine destiny during Reconstruction and the Spanish-American War; the adoption of the song by political foes and debates about the acceptability of its words, as “crusading Protestantism” (p. 157) or evoking world peace in the Progressive era, including its influence on American novelists; the song’s roles—mostly as “Solidarity Forever,” written by Ralph Chaplin (1915)—in the labor movement and class struggle from the 1910s through the 2011 Occupy Wall Street demonstrations; its favored status in the evangelical crusades of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham; and finally its use by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
The book is the most extensive documentation of the origins of the “Battle Hymn.” It weaves together newly mined archival documentation with the threads of evidence presented by the best earlier scholarship such as Charles Claghorn’s pamphlet, Battle Hymn: The Story Behind the Battle Hymn of the Republic (1974), with Boyd Stutler’s Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! The Story of “John Brown’s Body” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1960) and Florence Howe Hall’s slim book The Story of the Battle Hymn of the Republic (1971).
The book is not a musical history of the song, but a social and cultural history of the roles of the lyrics in America’s pervasive and enduring “civic millennialism” (p.146), told through often detailed and always fascinating accounts of events and campaigns that the “Battle Hymn” has inspired. If facts sometimes seem arcane and narratives tangential, the payoff is a deeper understanding of the power of the lyrics in American (and even world) discourse, the character of the nation at crucial times in its history, and the endeavors of leaders in all walks of life to express their mission and inspire their followers. The result paints a multidimensional portrait of a piece of culture that has achieved unprecedented ubiquity...